~ EARTH TALK ~

How can ordinary people convince corporations to behave more responsibly toward the environment?

— James B., Bridgeport, CT

Beyond the simple exercising of one’s own purchasing power, there are many actions consumers can take — and organizations and resources available to help — to pressure companies to green up their ways.

A good first step is to research the environmental records of companies involved in the industries that matter to you. The Web sites buyblue.org and alonovo.com evaluate companies according to various “green” criteria. And Co-Op America makes available online its Guide to Researching Corporations, which points to information on everything from corporate product safety records to animal testing policies to activities that impact everything from rainforests to the air quality in minority neighborhoods.

Co-Op America also works at the cutting edge of consumer activism, pushing companies into “doing well by doing good.” Its Adopt-A-Supermarket campaign uses the power of individuals to pressure grocery stores into carrying more fair trade items, products including coffee and chocolate made by companies that commit to sustainable environmental practices and guarantee workers fair wages. At Co-Op America’s Web site, you can download a campaign guide that provides background on the issue and tips on how to form an “adoption team” of concerned citizens that makes regular visits to educate store managers.

Another effort, Be Safe PVC, conducted in partnership with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, encourages major companies to phase out their use of the highly toxic plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They’ve already convinced Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works to phase out PVC in their packaging. Other Co-Op America successes include persuading Sempra Energy, the parent company of Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric, to abandon plans to build coal-fired power plants in Nevada and Idaho, and convincing the U.S. Postal Service to withdraw a proposal to deliver all residential mail in blue plastic bags, similar to those used for newspapers.

Another group, Ecopledge, recruits consumers to sign “pledges,” which demand specific improvements to companies’ environmental behavior and promise to cease doing business with the firms in question if they do not make efforts to green their practices. Armed with such pledges, Ecopledge has succeeded in convincing Dell and Apple to reduce the amount of e-waste they generate, getting ConocoPhillips and BP to drop out of Arctic Power (a lobbying entity pushing to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling) and working with Staples and Office Depot to craft green-friendly paper sourcing policies.

Ecopledge is currently working on a campaign to pressure major rental car companies, including Enterprise, Hertz, Cendant and Vanguard, to buy and rent cleaner cars, an effort, they say, that would save 500 million gallons of gasoline, reduce CO2 emissions by 14 billion pounds and save American drivers some $2 billion in gasoline expenses every year. They are also pressuring major meat producers, including Premium Standard Farms, Smithfield and Tyson to clean up hog and other animal waste that is causing widespread damage to the environment and human health in their areas of operation.

~ EARTH TALK ~

Of the countries that signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, which set goals for reducing global warming emissions? Which are fulfilling or surpassing their commitments? Which are falling short and why?

— Dan S., via e-mail

As of the end of 2006, 169 countries had signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement forged in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 calling on the world’s industrialized nations to reduce emissions of so-called “greenhouse gases” thought to be contributing to global warming. The agreement called for a 5.2 percent reduction overall in the release of six pollutants — carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) — by 2012 in relation to 1990 levels.

Although the agreement was hammered out 10 years ago, its emissions reduction standards did not take effect until two years ago, in February 2005. As such, signatory countries have only barely begun to make changes, and no one has yet conducted a comprehensive study of progress toward reaching targets. United Nations research does show, however, that a majority of the 36 European countries that signed on to the Kyoto Protocol are currently not on track to meet their goals by 2012.

However, the 27-member-nation European Union (EU), which as a block is one of the largest global warming polluters, is likely to meet its collective goal. This is due in large part to Eastern European states having shut down or modernized heavily polluting Soviet-era industries during the 1990s. Also helping the EU effort is the United Kingdom, which is on track to meet its goals, thanks mostly to a switch from coal-fired power plants to cleaner burning natural gas. Germany and France also hope to meet their Kyoto commitments, largely through a program of subsidies for the development of nonpolluting energy sources. And Sweden expects to overachieve on its Kyoto targets thanks to the imposition of a hefty carbon tax on polluting industries and big investments in alternative energy sources.

Topping the list of Kyoto slackers is Canada, which last year became the first signatory country to announce that it would not meet its Kyoto target of a six percent emissions cut by 2012. New oil production in the tar sands of Alberta has instead forced Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions up significantly, as the government has chosen to pursue economic growth as a priority over meeting its Kyoto commitments. Japan is also lagging behind. If no additional measures are taken, the United Nations forecasts that Japan’s emissions will instead grow six percent by 2012. But Japan’s environment ministry says that implementation of some market-based incentives in 2008 should help Japan meet its goal.

Regrettably, the United States and Australia don’t have to worry about meeting any commitments, as neither country agreed to sign the Kyoto agreement, even though together the two major industrial powers account for 30 percent of the world\\\’s greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. President George W. Bush does not support mandatory caps on emissions, arguing that such a move would cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy. He also complains that developing nations are not being held up to the same standards as the rest of the world. Unfortunately, with the U.S. on the sidelines, the good faith efforts of dozens of other nations could end up being quite immaterial in the fight to stave off global warming.

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